Nationals

Packers (2-3) looking for answers after Colts loss

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Packers (2-3) looking for answers after Colts loss

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) The Green Bay Packers were looking for answers all over in the wake of a dispiriting 30-27 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Their once powerful offense looks nothing like it did in 2011. Their defense is starting to look entirely too much like last year's group. And their otherwise solid special teams is asking why its previously reliable, strong-legged kicker Mason Crosby missed a pair of 50-yard field goals - including a potential tying 51-yarder with 3 seconds left in the game - after being virtually automatic before Sunday.

It all adds up to a 2-3 record, putting the Packers below .500 at this point in the season for the third time in coach Mike McCarthy's seven-year tenure. When it happened in McCarthy's first season of 2006, the team needed a four-game winning streak to end the year at 8-8. When it happened in 2008 in Aaron Rodgers' first season as the team's starting quarterback, the Packers were 5-5 before a five-game losing streak led to a 6-10 finish.

On top of it all, the Packers' next game is against the Houston Texans, who took a perfect 4-0 record into their Monday night game at the New York Jets. The Packers play at Houston next Sunday night, the second of three consecutive games away from Lambeau Field.

``We're a focused football team; we're just not playing to the level that we want to play at right now,'' said McCarthy, whose team reeled off 19 consecutive victories - six straight en route to the Super Bowl XLV title and 13 in a row to open last season - but has now lost 5 of its last nine dating back to last season. ``That's what we have to stay focused on. We have to stay focused on our habits, our discipline, our preparation, the process leading up to Sunday night.''

Compounding problems: Injuries to Pro Bowl wide receiver Greg Jennings, who missed Sunday's loss with a lingering groin injury; workhorse running back Cedric Benson, who left Sunday's game with a sprained foot; tight end Jermichael Finley, who injured his shoulder against the Colts; and defensive tackle B.J. Raji, who sprained his ankle in Indianapolis.

McCarthy ruled Benson out for this week's game while saying that Raji and Finley ``have a chance'' to play against the Texans.

But injuries are only part of the problem. On offense, Rodgers isn't playing up to the 45-touchdown, six-interception, 122.5-passer rating standard he set last season when he was MVP.

He has completed 130 of 189 passes (68.8 percent) for 1,307 yards with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions (a 2.1 percent interception rate) with 21 sacks for a passer rating of 97.0.

Last season, the Packers scored 560 points, the second-most in NFL history and an average of 35 points per game. Through five games, the Packers have scored only 112 points this season, an average of 22.5 per game - with two of their touchdowns coming on special-teams plays.

``It's never the same from year to year,'' McCarthy said. ``We didn't have rhythm coming out of training camp, we haven't established it consistently through five games. That's where we are.''

Asked about the team's offensive struggles in Sunday's loss, Rodgers replied, ``"We just didn't make any plays. (The Colts) got a little more pressure in the second half. We turned the ball over and got them into a two-score game and then they kind of got back mentally into the game. And then we couldn't put any points on the board to put them away.''

On defense, the unit that gave up the most yards in the NFL last season and set an NFL record for most passing yards allowed continues to give up huge swaths of yardage. One week after giving up 474 yards to the New Orleans Saints, the defense gave up 464 yards to rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts on Sunday.

The difference on defense is that the NFL's most proficient turnover-producing team is no longer taking the ball away. Rookie cornerback Casey Hayward's interception on a Luck pass intended for Reggie Wayne was just the fifth takeaway on the season for the Packers, who entered the weekend with the most takeaways (114) of any team in the league since defensive coordinator Dom Capers took over in 2009.

Last season, the Packers led the NFL with 31 interceptions and tied for the league lead with 38 total takeaways; this year, there have been entirely too many turnovers that didn't happen because of officials' calls, dropped interceptions or penalties that nullified takeaways.

``It's a big difference because as we all know turnovers have such a deciding factor on the games,'' Capers said Monday. ``When you're getting them, you're stealing two or three opportunities and you're talking about a game where there were 15 possessions (by the Colts offense). If you can get three or four takeaways and you get that down to 12 or 11 possessions, it makes a big difference.''

Last season, Crosby was an impressive 24 of 28 and made the second game-winning kick of his NFL career on Dec. 4, connecting from 31 yards out as time expired to give the Packers a 38-35 victory over the eventual Super Bowl-champion New York Giants. His first-game winner had been a 42-yarder against Philadelphia in his NFL debut on Sept. 9, 2007.

In between those two kicks, Crosby had missed three potential winning kicks: A 52-yarder with 26 seconds left at Minnesota on Nov. 9, 2008; a blocked 38-yarder with 25 seconds left at Chicago on Dec. 22, 2008; and a 53-yarder with 7 seconds left in regulation in a tie game at Washington on Oct. 10, 2010.

Then came Sunday, when with 8 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Crosby hooked a 51-yard attempt that would have forced overtime.

``I would say this: I would expect him to step up and make that kick,'' special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. ``He needs to help our team in that situation, (given) where that game was at, at that time. Obviously to go to overtime, he needs to make that kick.''

But despite all their issues, McCarthy described his team as ``confident, disappointed'' while acknowledging the ``contradiction there.''

``We've got to win the next one. We've put ourselves in a hole,'' veteran safety/cornerback Charles Woodson said. ``The only thing you can hang your hat on is that it's still early in the season and you've got a long way to go.''

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Past Nationals relievers: Where are they now?

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Past Nationals relievers: Where are they now?

It’s no secret that the Nationals bullpen is one of the weakest units in baseball this season. Fans in the nation’s capital have spent two months watching relievers cough up leads and put games out of reach, and the numbers speak for themselves. 

Washington’s team ERA among relievers is an unsightly 7.09 entering Memorial Day Weekend, nearly a full run higher than the 29th-ranked Orioles. As a unit, they’ve pitched fewer innings than any other bullpen, yet have allowed the second-most earned runs.

No one has been immune. Sean Doolittle, by far the best option in 2019, has seen his ERA balloon to 3.68. Justin Miller is the only other regular reliever with an ERA below 5, and he’s at 4.02.

It’s caused much consternation in the fanbase, and for good reason. Where did the Nationals go wrong in building this bullpen? What could they have done differently?

To answer that question, let’s take a look at four relievers who are experiencing various levels of success while no longer in Washington.

Felipe Vazquez

Vazquez has been lights out in Pittsburgh in 2019. He ranks top-10 among relievers in WAR (0.9) and top-12 in ERA (1.25). He holds the sixth-best K/9 (14.54) and is tied for the fourth-most saves in baseball with 13.

Every one of those numbers would lead the Nationals with ease. At 27, Vazquez has turned into one of the elite relievers in the sport. He’s been terrific all three years with the Pirates, and 2019 looks like his best season yet.

Of course, he wasn’t ready to be this guy in 2016 when the Nationals traded him for Mark Melancon. It was a necessary trade at the time, and one that worked out well in a vacuum. Melancon pitched well in Washington and didn’t allow a run in the 2016 postseason.

Right now, the Nats could really use a Felipe Vazquez, but the logic behind their trade at the time was sound.

Blake Treinen

Treinen has already allowed as many earned runs in 2019 (seven) as he did in all of 2018. It’s not a knock on his performance this season, where his 2.59 ERA would still lead the Nationals, but a recognition of just how dominant he was in 2018.

In the modern era of Major League Baseball, it’s just about impossible for a reliever to win the Cy Young. Even with just 80 innings pitched last year, Treinen finished sixth in Cy Young voting and 15th in MVP voting. 

That’s right. He was so good, he got down-ballot votes for MVP. It was a sensational year.

His usually-elite ground ball rate is down this season, which has led to some regression, but it’s still notable he put together a 2018 season that far outshines any individual season the Nats have seen.

It was clear in 2017 he wasn’t capable of performing as the team’s closer, eventually earning a demotion before being traded to Oakland.

Despite his enormous success in the years since the trade, it’s hard to question the Nationals here. Not only did it seem apparent Treinen wasn’t going to figure things out in D.C., but the trade brought back Sean Doolittle, the lone consistently great reliever the Nats have had in recent years.

Brandon Kintzler

Kintzler pitched parts of two seasons in Washington, but ultimately spent exactly one year with the Nationals. In that year, he tossed 68.2 innings while striking out 43 batters and walking 18.

His ERA with the Nationals was 3.54, too high for a high-leverage reliever. He struggled mightily in 2018 after being traded to the Cubs, but has settled down this season to the tune of a 2.96 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 24 innings.

As is the case for just about any halfway-decent reliever, the current Nationals bullpen would benefit from having him, but this isn’t nearly the loss Treinen or Vasquez were.

Shawn Kelley

Kelley was up-and-down in his time with the Nationals. His ERA was below three in 2016 and 2018, but the 2017 season was marred with injuries, inconsistency, and a tendency to allow home runs (a whopping 12 in just 26 innings).

Of course, Kelley was pitching better in 2018, but it wasn’t performance that led to his departure. 

In a blowout Nationals 25-4 victory over the Mets in July 2018, Kelley allowed three earned runs, including a home run. After the home run, he slammed his glove on the ground while staring at the Nats dugout.

The next day, he was designated for assignment as a result of the outburst and never pitched for the Nationals again, traded away a few days later. 

In his 33.2 innings since the trade, Kelley has been terrific. He posted a 2.16 ERA with the Athletics in 2018 and currently holds a 1.59 ERA in 2019 despite pitching his home games in Texas. He’s even filled in at closer with the Rangers, recording five saves so far this year.

Though his removal wasn’t for performance issues like Kintzler's or to acquire proven closers like Treinen’s and Vasquez’s were, the loss of Kelley can be felt just as hard. As is the case with each of these relievers, Kelley’s numbers would lead the Nationals bullpen in just about every category.

For the most part, these moves made sense at the time, for one reason or another. But the Nationals have yet to adequately replace most of these arms, and the 2019 team is suffering as a result.

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Baltimore Ravens Roundup: Free agent Gerald McCoy to visit Baltimore

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Baltimore Ravens Roundup: Free agent Gerald McCoy to visit Baltimore

Kick off your holiday weekend with the latest Baltimore Ravens news.

1. One of the most obvious needs for the Ravens is help rushing the passer, and they're hoping to find some of that help on the interior in the form of free agent Gerald McCoy. The longtime Buccaneer DL visited Cleveland last week, but left town without agreeing to a contract.

Reportedly interested in playing for a contender, the former top-five pick is scheduled to visit the Ravens on Tuesday.

2. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is still struggling to throw the ball, as he noted things aren't right yet when it comes to accuracy. Media members noticed the ball wobbling through the air on many throws, and Jackson told them he thinks his hand is too high on the ball. If he's going to successfully run Greg Roman's new offensive scheme, Jackson will eventually need to be able to hit his receivers in stride with greater regularity.

Looking Ahead:

July 15: 4 p.m. deadline to get a long-term deal done with designated franchise tag players.

The 2019 NFL schedule is set! See the Baltimore Ravens defend the AFC North at M&T Bank Stadium this season. Get your tickets now at www.BaltimoreRavens.com/tickets.

Credit: Rotoworld and Baltimore Ravens for news points.

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